Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Jennifer Donovan
6 min readApr 25, 2022
Photo courtesy of Image of two women: one woman standing with her arms outstretched above her head, looking toward a sun-lit sky, and the other a figure in shadow, sitting with her head in her hand in front of a darker, cloudier sky.

In 1997, my boyfriend, whom I had dated on-and-off, but mostly on, for five and a half years, broke up with me. Even though I knew we were not good for one another, I was still devastated. I can still remember lying in a crumpled heap in the middle of my Queens, NY apartment, sobbing. All of the dependence I had had on my parents was transferred to him when we began dating my second semester freshman year in college. I had absolutely no idea who I was without him, and I was terrified.

These lines from Ani DiFranco’s song Independence Day really resonated with me at that time:

“Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating
When you stopped calling me
I was cramped up
And shitting rivers for weeks
And pretending that I was finally free”

But in the end, and after a brief time grieving, I really was free for the first time in my life. That devastating break-up allowed me to explore who I really was at the time — who I wanted to be, and it set the stage for me to be in the right physical and emotional space to meet the man who would eventually become my husband, just three years later.

In 2018, I broke up with the corporate world. After twenty years working for investment banks and multi-nationals, feeling like my soul was dying a little more each day, I said goodbye to my six-figure income and hello to a job that lets me live my values every single day. I am emphatically pro-abortion, and I get to show up every day at a place that works to make abortion and birth control more accessible, and health care more equitable. It is an honor to go to work every day.

While emotionally difficult and painful, breaking up can be the best thing for you. It has been for me. I can’t think of a single job or relationship that I have walked away from, willingly or not, that I have not grown from or was not better off without after time to process, grieve, and rebuild.

So, if I am happy in my relationship and my job, what or with whom am I trying to break up with these days? Without a doubt, I am on one of the most difficult break-up journeys of my life. I am trying to break up with all of the defense and survival mechanisms I created and have utilized since I was a child that no longer serve me. I am trying to let go of all of the self-deprecation; sarcasm; self-doubt; self-hatred, and fear that I have lived with for as long as I can remember. I am learning to break up with my old self, while simultaneously rebuilding a “new” me. But it’s not really a “new” me, as much as it is the me I have finally found after having enough calmness and quiet in my brain to focus on the parts of me I want to listen to, nurture and grow. I no longer hear an incessant loop of negative and hateful thoughts, and when those old brain ghosts do rise to haunt me, I am able to stop them fairly quickly. After so many years of falling victim to those never-ending, negative thoughts, it feels like a superpower to be able to stop them.

But the brain ghosts do rise from time to time, and they keep me from being myself. They keep me from acting on things I want to do and say. They keep me from being who I want to be. They keep me from writing regularly, and they keep me from sharing. But I exorcise them, and I write, and I share, and here we are.

In addition to wanting to become my true self, and in addition to wanting to limit the number of regrets I have on my deathbed, there are reasons I want to share that go beyond my desire for community — or maybe my desire for community is rooted in my knowledge that we are going to need one another soon. In reality, we have always needed one another — we are much more social and communal beings than our individualistic society trains us to be. But as the Right continues to demonize LGBTQ people — particularly trans kids and trans people, and as “CRT” is maligned and misrepresented, as books are banned, as reproductive rights are decimated, as disinformation rages and one party seeks to consolidate power and our democracy struggles for survival, we are going to need to stand up for one another in ways many of us are not used to. We are going to need to stand up through our fear and in the face of fear, and it will not be easy.

I will be honest — I do not have a good track record of standing up when my safety and comfort are at stake. I will write that confessional soon, but suffice to say, I have pretty much always chosen what is best for me and not what was actually the right thing to do in that moment. I am ashamed when I think about what I have done (and more so not done), but I cannot let how I have behaved in the past stop me from doing what is right today and going forward.

If you have not read Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, then I encourage you to do so. I have been the white moderate that Dr. King writes about, and I have most definitely “prefer[ed] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” I also am doing everything I can every day to learn to push through discomfort and say and do what is right, even if it causes tension within myself and between me and those I love.

The Ani DiFranco lines that are going through my head these days are the following (from her song Willing to Fight):

“’Cause I know the biggest crime
Is just to throw up your hands
Say ‘This has nothing to do with me
I just want to live as comfortably as I can’”

If things continue to go in the direction they are going in this country and abroad, we are going to have to risk our short-term comfort in order to protect our long-term liberty. We are going to have to fight the urge to allow civil and human rights to continue to be taken from “others” because we are not them. We are going to be called upon to stand up and risk our safety and comfort, and if we do not, we will all eventually suffer, but it will be the marginalized folks who will suffer first and worst.

So that is why I am breaking up with my old self, too. If I am a stronger version of myself for me, I can become a stronger version of myself for others. As I become a better and stronger version of myself, I become happier and less afraid. As I become happier and less afraid, I am able to stand up more and am more likely to say and do the right things to help others, and if we all do some version of this work, we will all benefit.

I personally can’t think of a bigger regret on my deathbed than allowing pain and harm to come to others and knowing there was something more I could have said and done to have minimized or stopped it. Let’s all break up with comfort and that “negative peace which is the absence of tension” and pursue personal and collective liberation in order to achieve the “positive peace which is the presence of justice”, so we can all thrive together.